THERE'S A DEAD BODY AT the chalk store. It’s Robbie, who wore a clip-on bowtie and had long fingernails for playing banjo. Robbie worked nights by himself a lot. We find him in the morning. With his eyes wide open and his mouth agape, it might look like he’d been scared to death if it weren’t for the bruises on his neck. What we notice after we notice that is: he’s not wearing his bowtie. What else we notice is: his nails are trimmed, all ten of them.
Sarah calls the cops while Chris draws a chalk outline. He opens a box of the new stuff we just got in from Stensonite. It’s four bucks a stick, our most expensive chalk by far, made of something called InkDust: “Goes on strong, wipes away like it was never there.” We were lucky to be one of the stores chosen as part of their pilot program and probably shouldn’t waste it, but Chris insists, says it’s a tribute, that Robbie deserves the best, and since Mina, who’s the boss, doesn’t stop him, none of us do either.
When the cops show up, though, they just erase Chris’s outline—it does sweep away real nice—and draw their own. Chris gets mad and wants to know, what gives? “It’s a procedural thing,” says the detective in charge. “Just let us handle it, okay? We’ve been doing this for a while.” To which Chris replies, yeah well, we’ve been working with chalk for a while, ever thought of that? When he almost gets into a fistfight with one of the officers, Mina tells him, “Chris, why don’t you take a walk to cool down.” Then she gives him the company card. “Buy enough coffee and bagels for everybody, even the cops. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Mina turns to me here because she knows that, regardless of the situation, I can always be relied upon for a nod of agreement. I nod and agree that bagels would be nice. Chris sighs but takes the card and walks out. We never see Chris again.
When the body’s taken away, and we all have a little time to get ourselves together, Mina makes an announcement: “There will be a new dress code effective tomorrow. We all wear clip-on bowties now, like Robbie did.” Then she adds, “Sweet gentle Robbie.” Dennis, who’s a know-it-all, asks if he can wear a normal bowtie since he knows how to tie one. “No,” says Mina. “This isn’t about bowties. It’s about showing we care.”
Dennis tries to say that Robbie would’ve wanted him to wear his real bowtie because Robbie would’ve worn a real bowtie himself if he had known how to tie one, but Mina just says, “It’s clip-on, or it’s two weeks notice.” The look she gives Dennis is not one we’re used to seeing.
Sarah, whose dad died a year ago, seems to be taking this whole thing the hardest. She insists we go around and each say something about Robbie, says she’ll start. She tells us about last back-to-school season, when they closed together. She says she asked him for a ride downtown so she could take one bus home, not two, but he gave her a ride the whole way. She says that his car was really nice. Like there was polished wood stuff everywhere, and also temperature control, and… but she can’t finish because she’s crying. Dennis says something about how a lot of the times it’s not real wood they use in cars like that. It might sound rude if he weren’t crying too, if we all weren’t crying about Robbie’s car that was nicer than you’d think it would be.
Mina doesn’t cancel the card she gave Chris. She checks the billing history online. Chris seems to be going on a sort of meandering cross-country trip. Mina fills us in: “He’s in Pennsylvania, appears to have eaten Chinese for lunch, nothing for dinner, unless maybe that means he had leftovers? Gosh, I hope not. There’s no refrigeration on the road. He could get food poisoning.” Or, “The place he’s at in Youngstown has a drink that gets lit on fire. I hope Chris got one, unless he plans on driving more tonight.” Or, “Looks like Chris ate sushi in Athens, Wyoming. Or no, WV. That’s West Virginia. Either way, can’t imagine the sushi’s great.”
She reports these findings to us with a certain wistfulness. When she goes into her office, we huddle together and whisper: wait, were Mina and Chris secretly doing it? We don’t know because obviously Chris isn’t around to fill us in and nobody’s really that close to Mina. Don’t get us wrong: she’s a great boss, but as a boss, she’s not one of us. Most of what we get from Mina feels surface-level, while the real Mina hides somewhere deeper down, beneath a lithosphere of professionalism. The real Mina must be in shambles right now, having lost one of her best employees and maybe another one too who might be her lover. And yet the Mina we get shows none of it. The Mina we get appears more composed than anyone.
My own suspicions go further than this. They occur to me involuntarily while I daydream, which is a habit I’ve only picked up recently. I don’t like it. My value at the chalk store has always been that I don’t think apart from the others. I take comfort in the warmth of the hive mind. But it happens that my thoughts wander. Before Robbie’s death, my daydreams manifested themselves as puzzles. I am in the storage room, my hands powdery with the dust of some high end sticks I’m not supposed to touch: how can I get out, through the store, and into the bathroom without leaving any incriminating mark anywhere? I am approached by a particularly desperate customer, but all of the shelves have been replaced by expanses of unbroken limestone: using only a pair of scissors, how do I chip off and make cylindrical a dozen pieces?
Now, my thoughts go somewhere else: to the strange coincidence that, immediately after we found Robbie, Chris disappeared. I usually stop myself before I can make any regrettable inferences therein, and that’s a lucky thing, because they would be ludicrous. The chalk store is a good place, and we who are employed here are good people who work hard and care about what we do. We are not killers, and Chris is no exception.
We understand that grief is necessary, but Sarah’s grief is becoming a problem. For example, the other day, while demoing Tillman’s new ShriekResist product line, she wrote “RIP” on the test board. Fortunately, she caught herself, added an E, and stammered to the customer something about, you know, like an avocado gets, but it’s still concerning. Even worse is the way she talks about Robbie, about how he was such a bright spot in the store—which is true enough; he was always a nice guy—and also how he served as sort of a father figure to us all—which is not true; Robbie was about the same age as the rest of us. Last time she brought that up, Mina pulled her aside and told her, “It seems like maybe this thing has opened up some old wounds. Do you want to take a couple weeks off to regroup?” But Sarah just acted put out, like, Who? Me? No way! And honestly, down Robbie and Chris, Mina needs us all on duty.
And so it happens that we’re doing inventory one afternoon when Sarah asks, what’s the memory of Robbie that we most often return to? To which the reply is an uncomfortable silence, made all the more uncomfortable when a glance around the store reveals us to be the only two employees present, meaning Sarah’s question has not been tossed out for mass consideration, but directed solely to me. Our delineation into asker and answerer feels so sudden that it makes me shiver. My mind races to find any memory of Robbie so I might rid myself of this unwanted attention, but the only thing I can dredge up is from a few Christmases ago.
For a rare shift together, Robbie and I had been tasked with putting together a holiday display. First, we emptied four large containers of cheap green chalk and glued the sticks together in a conical structure resembling a pine tree. Next, we emptied a smaller container of red chalk and attached the pieces to the tree in a spiraling line like a garland. Finally, we wrapped the empty boxes as dummy gifts. When we placed them under the tree, though, we found we couldn’t get the arrangement right. Everything we tried just looked off. The small box stood out awkwardly no matter what. After several minutes of tinkering and shifting, Robbie said he had an idea. He took the small box and threw it away. It was so simple. With only four gifts of the same size, symmetry was achieved easily. Order through elimination, Robbie said to me with a wink.
But this is not the right memory to share with Sarah, given how strangely anti-prophetic it is: Robbie’s own elimination having thrown things into such total disorder. So instead I mumble something about there just being too many to choose from, and Sarah’s eyes glisten, and she says she feels the same way. Then she drops her inventory clipboard and hugs me, and I hug her back, so that we are not hug giver and hug recipient; we are just hugging.
The investigation into what happened to Robbie is ongoing. The detective comes by the chalk store. “Mind if I take another look around?” he asks. We say, of course. We say, anything for Robbie. We tell him we’ll answer his questions again if he needs us to. “That’s alright, I’m really just here to look,” he says. So we all leave him to it and go back to work—unloading the new stuff from Crayline, made of their famous GumPowdr compound: “For smooth lines, soft grip, and whisper-quiet application”—all of us except Dennis, that is. No, Dennis has to walk around with the detective like he’s his assistant, nodding to himself occasionally as if he understands.
Searching for Robbie’s bowtie? Dennis asks after a while. The detective turns, surprised he’s there. “Oh no, that’s not necessary,” he says. “We retrieved the bowtie. It was shoved down the victim’s throat. Like, way down.” Without thinking, we all touch our clip-on bowties in unison. The detective notices. We tell him we’re wearing them for Robbie. “Okay, yeah, sure,” he says.
So you’re checking for prints that match the ones you found on the bowtie, Dennis posits.
The detective shakes his head again. “Nope, no prints on the bowtie that we could pull off.”
Dennis really doesn’t seem to be buying the whole just another look around angle. He throws up his arms in frustration, says, so what is it then? His nails? Is the detective looking for his nail clippings? This confuses the detective. We tell him about Robbie being a banjo player and having long fingernails.
“Like, how long?” the detective wants to know.
We say, pretty long. Dennis tries to be more specific, says a half inch, then corrects himself, says six tenths of an inch, then clarifies: that’s three fifths of an inch. The detective has a look in his eyes. “Did any of you ever hear Robbie play banjo?”
We turn to each other. Weirdly enough, none of us have.
“I gotta go,” the detective tells us, and he rushes out the door.
Mina comes out of her office to give us the latest on Chris. Since we’re cleaning out the ledge of the test board, we’ve got the compaction machine running. The compaction machine presses all the loose dust back into sticks of chalk to be sold at a steeply discounted rate, “for teachers in need.” It makes a loud rumbling sound, so we don’t hear the first part of what Mina says—although we’re pretty sure “rodeo” was in there—and only manage to hit the off switch in time to catch the tail end, which is: “…always wanted to go to the Southwest.”
When Mina returns to her office, we all come together. The first word of that last sentence seemed to end with an e-sound, most-likely “he,” telling enough in its own right as it implies Mina has a knowledge of Chris’s desires, even if just in terms of where he wants to go. But the more we talk about it, the more sure we become that the word was actually “we,” that not only did Chris always want to visit the Southwest, but that he wanted do so with Mina as his travel partner. And if they’re hopeful of being travel partners in the future, who knows what kind of partners they likely are already. Which is to say, we all know exactly what kind of partners they likely are already.
This metamorphosis in our collective understanding of what Mina said is not unfamiliar to me. I experience a similar thing in my daydreams, though with moments further back in my memory: they reshape themselves. For example, the back-to-school wrap party last year. We were already drunk with exhaustion, so when someone added vodka to the punch, things got a bit sloppy. We started drawing obscene pictures on the concrete floor and then getting down and barrel rolling the whole length of the store to erase them. When we stood, our eyes stung from the dust we’d kicked up, but we all just laughed and patted ourselves causing technicolor clouds to explode from our shirts. Mina refused to partake, but she couldn’t help but grin.
At some point, Robbie slipped into the break room and put some weird old-timey Italian folk music over the speaker system. When he came back out, he stood in front of Mina and curtsied. “Oh, I don’t think…” she tried to say, but Robbie didn’t wait for her to finish. He took her hands in his—holding them daintily, careful not to scratch her— and spun her around. This time Mina laughed right along with the rest of us. Or was it that Mina laughed right along with the rest of us, except Chris? Was it that Chris just stood there, his mouth a straight line? Was there sadness in his eyes? Anger? Jealousy?
This is what I mean about the memories: truthfully, I wouldn’t know the look on Chris’s face in that moment, because I wouldn’t be looking at him. I’d be watching Mina and Robbie dance. And yet now, I can’t remember it any other way than this—with Chris apart from the rest of us, brooding.
When the guy comes in who looks like Robbie, Sarah gasps. We hear her from where we are on the sales floor, but the man, thankfully, appears oblivious. He wanders around, browsing casually, unaware that Sarah’s eyes follow his every move. And yes, we’ll admit it, we watch him too, because we’re all thinking the same thing: could this be some relative of Robbie’s who’s come by to see the place where his loved one spent so much of his time, a place he most likely spoke of often to those closest to him, his face as aglow as ours when we do the same?
The ding of the door indicates another customer has arrived. It’s Ms. Mooreland, the sweet old third-grade teacher. She grabs her usual—four boxes of the Tetraline Blues, real basic stuff—and makes her way to the checkout counter.
“How are things?” she says. She doesn’t realize how difficult a question it is. Ms. Mooreland comes by the chalk store just frequently enough to be friendly with us, but she hasn’t been here for a few weeks.
Sarah practically jumps as if she’s been snuck up on. She says hello to Ms. Mooreland, says she didn’t see her there. Will it just be these?
Now not one of us is watching Robbie’s lookalike. We’re all watching Sarah, visibly rattled, rushing through the transaction as quickly as she can. We send her positive energy, trying to will the universe to let her off the hook this one time. But Ms. Mooreland is too perceptive, or maybe not perceptive enough. Otherwise she would sense not to ask any questions.
“Is everything okay, dear?”
Sarah looks at the Robbie lookalike, still absently wandering the store, then back to Ms. Mooreland, then back to the lookalike, then to Ms. Mooreland. Her eyes grow large, and we can see it, we can see the gears working: the desire not to drive away a loyal customer by burdening her with the tragedy of our chalk store in the recent days, and the competing concern that this man within earshot could be Robbie’s brother or cousin and thus would be thoroughly displeased to hear his dearly departed family member’s former coworker say something as callous as, “Yeah, everything’s fine,” in the face of such a loss.
Sarah’s whole body begins to shake. The wailing noise she makes is quiet and high-pitched at first, then grows louder and louder like it’s drilling its way out of her. Once she starts sobbing, she can’t stop, or at least doesn’t seem to be making any effort to stop.
“Oh, good heavens! I didn’t mean anything by it!” Ms. Mooreland says, but we’re there, telling her it’s not her fault, and the Robbie-looking guy is there with us too, looking even more perplexed than anyone. Sarah turns to him, starts yelling at him about how sorry she is, how much Robbie meant to her. She’s really flailing around but we manage to get ahold of her and drag her back to the break room.
When we return, the man is still standing there next to Ms. Mooreland. He holds up a box of sidewalk chalk, says in a thick French accent, “I just come for to buy my kids, yes?”
Mina tells us Chris has gone to Mexico. “He bought some supplies at a border town a few days ago,” she explains, “and the card’s been dark since. He’s always wanted to taste authentic horchata and see Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Chris had never mentioned any of this to us, had always refused our invitations for lunch at the taqueria down the street, but we don’t say anything. Especially not me, especially not about what Mexico represents in movies and crime novels: the destination for fugitives on the run. No, none of this is spoken, because the news seems to bring some much-needed finality for Mina. As she tells us of Mexico’s culture and climate, her voice lilts with sad relief, and her eyes, though tired, seem to almost twinkle with resignation.
The detective is back. He wants to know if any “friends” ever visited Robbie at work. “Anyone who seemed to know Robbie, even if they didn’t say much to each other, like maybe if a guy ever came in and gave Robbie an envelope or something, or said strange things, like in a code?” His excited hand gestures nearly knock over the display showing off the new Reflectrim Lazerwhite sticks—“Fine lines without sacrificing brightness”—and he speaks loud enough to draw Mina out of her office.
“I’m sorry, envelopes? Like mail?” Mina says.
“No, definitely not mail. No stamp, no name,” the detective says. “It would happen discretely, the hand-off.”
We all look to Mina but she appears to be as confused as we are. “I don’t understand,” she says. “If you want me to answer any more questions, you’re going to need to tell me what this is all about.”
The detective hesitates for a moment, then nods, clears his throat: “So, have you ever heard of the Bertolino crime family?” We look to Dennis. He shakes his head, no. “You kind of get the picture, though, right? Crime family?”
“What does this have to do with Robbie?” Mina asks.
“Well, we have reason to believe the Robbie is actually Roberto Bertolino, or as he’s known on the streets, ‘The Bobcat,’ because, uh…” The detective gives us an apologetic look. “I don’t know how much of this you’re gonna want to hear.”
“We can handle it,” Mina says, though we’re not sure we agree with her.
“Okay, fine. So he is, or he was called the Bobcat, because he left these sort of claw marks on his victims.”
“He was what you’d call an enforcer. Basically, he took care of anyone the family didn’t want around anymore. I’m sorry. I know this is weird—”
Wait, why did Robbie work here then?
“It’s not a totally uncommon practice for the Bertolinos. We’ve often heard that they like to keep their guys tucked away in these crummy little day jobs.”
We turn to each other. Crummy little day jobs? “Sorry, but you know what I mean,” the detective says. No, we don’t.
“Cool it, guys,” Mina says.
“Don’t get me wrong,” the detective continues. “It’s not without its benefits. It keeps ’em disciplined, out of the public eye. I mean, we’d only ever heard of the Bobcat before. A lot of guys were convinced he was an urban legend. They’re very careful about stuff like that, the Bertolino family. But this? Finding his body? This is huge. Like, tip of the iceberg stuff. So if you ever saw anyone come in to visit, or better yet, if there’s surveillance footage—”
“We don’t have a camera system,” Mina says. “And Robbie worked alone most nights, aside from a few shifts for back-to-school. But those shifts get so busy. We wouldn’t be able to point out any one person.”
The detective sighs. “Figures,” he says. “Well, if you do think of anybody…” He hands Mina his card and turns to leave, but Sarah has a question: does this mean Robbie didn’t play banjo? “You told me he had long fingernails, but were they long on both hands?” We confirm yes, both hands. “And that didn’t strike you as weird? For playing banjo?”
We turn to Dennis, who mumbles something about, fuck, that’s right, the fret hand.
“Okay,” says Mina when the detective is gone, “bowties off and in the trash.” Again our attention is drawn to Dennis, because it takes him longer to remove his bowtie than us, because it turns out Dennis has been wearing a real bowtie this whole time. As he works at loosening it up, his eyes go wide: wait a minute, the detective never specified a geo-ethnic origin of the crime family Robbie belonged to, so what if it was the French mafia, and then, the guy who came in that looked like Robbie, with the French accent, maybe he—
“Bertolino,” Mina says. “Does that sound French to you, Dennis?” Dennis has to admit, it doesn’t sound very French.
We’re shaken up, of course, but at least now we can start to put Robbie, or whoever he was, behind us. At least now we can focus on what’s coming next at the chalk store: The Fall Break Re-Up Sales Event, Eraser Week, The Count-By-Five Off for Charity, etc. For what it’s worth, without news of Chris and with the cops suspecting Robbie’s killer to be a member of a rival family, my daydreams have returned to normal. The other day, while organizing the stock room, I spent nearly an hour wondering: how could I snap the last stick of Jemly GreenGlow into two absolutely equal length mini-sticks for two customers in need using a paperclip? And furthermore, would I charge half the original cost or give them each the broken product discount? I would like not to suffer these thoughts at all, would like to lend my mind wholly to agreement. But I have to admit, I prefer them to the suspicions, and it’s a relief that my memories seem to have righted themselves.
Which is all to say, there is a sense of closure at the chalk store. Things are not as happy as they once were, but they at least feel knowable. We may occupy a new space in the store’s history, but it is a space with clear parameters, a space we can learn.
It only feels this way until the morning the young woman comes in and makes her way to the counter. She walks past the walls of chalk with purpose. She is not a customer, we can tell that even before she speaks.
“I’m sorry to bother you and I know this might be awkward,” she says, “but my boyfriend used to work here, and I think he may have left a sweater behind.”
We ask: boyfriend? “Yes. Chris Schaefer.”
We are shocked. Our first thought is to keep our voices down so Mina doesn’t hear, but she has already emerged behind us. “Chris sent you down here for his sweater?” She tries not to sound too surprised, but we can tell.
“No, no. I came on my own. We couldn’t find it anywhere, and this is the last place he remembers having it, and it’s his favorite sweater so I thought I would just come down. God, he’d be mortified if he knew I was here. He really is sorry for what happened, but you know Chris. He’s not the best with expressing himself sometimes.”
What does she mean, what happened?
“You don’t need to tell them any—” Mina starts to say, but the woman shakes her head.
“It’s okay, really. I understand if you’re all still mad. But honest, he didn’t… Well, after what he saw? A dead body? Right there in the middle of the store? He was so shaken up that he decided to get a drink, which is forgivable enough, right? Even if it was early. He told me he wanted to have just one, and I believe him. He’s not a heavy drinker normally. He didn’t mean to lose the card.”
“Of course not,” Mina says. “Nobody would have suspected that he—”
“When he sobered up,” the woman says—we can’t believe it; nobody talks over Mina—“I told him to call, you know, to apologize. But he told me he just couldn’t, that he couldn’t face it down. Not you, this place, after what happened.”
“Sarah, why don’t you go check the break room for a sweater,” Mina says. Then to the young woman: “You tell Chris we appreciate all he did for the store.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll do that. I don’t think he’d like it that I came,” the woman says.
Sarah returns from the break room and mutters something about no sweater. “Thank you for checking,” the woman says, and she’s gone as quickly as she can be.
We turn to Mina. We want to be there for her. “What?” Mina says, even though we didn’t say anything.
Sarah decides to handle it. She starts in on about how we just thought, with how Mina spoke about Chris, and how she knew all of this stuff about him that we didn’t know, and then with her not canceling the card, that maybe they—
“Stop right there,” Mina says. “I can see where this is going. But Chris was an employee. We talked sometimes, sure. I’m allowed to do that. I’m allowed to talk to my employees. My decision not to cancel the card was an emotional one. It was a mistake, but we’ve all made mistakes recently. So drop it.”
With that she returns to her office, shutting the door behind her.
We come together. Dennis wants to pitch a few theories about whose trail we’ve been following this whole time with the card. Sarah says that relationships often take on a life of their own, and when they end, it’s like a death almost, so it’s natural that Mina is denying her feelings for Chris; that’s the first stage of grief. For my part, I try to want to know what they want to know. I try to agree with everything they say.
SEAN ADAMS is a graduate of Bennington College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in such journals as The Normal School, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Mid-American Review, and Hobart.